Turn the page on poverty

Opinion: Planet Roulette, by Barry Coates, Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand

Breaking promises, shifting blame in the climate game -- New Zealand Herald, December 11, 2008

by Oxfam New Zealand's Executive Director, Barry Coates

Here at the United Nations climate change conference in Poznan, Poland, negotiations are hectic. I’m not surprised; there is much at stake. Still, some of the delegates have found time to play a game in between their meetings. You might have heard of it before, it’s called “Planet Roulette”.

The rules aren’t complicated. Step one: break promises.

Japan and Canada promised to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol but they are now threatening to renege. Australia was to press for future cuts in emissions to keep global warming under 2°C, but now is saying that it is no longer “realistic”. New Zealand was to finally start reducing its emissions that have increased by over a quarter since the climate convention was signed, but the new government is using delaying tactics with the emissions trading scheme.

Other players join in.

Part of the Kyoto deal was the promise by rich nations to provide support for clean technology so developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. But of the estimated US$50 billion per year needed for adaptation, less than 1% has been delivered. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries are being left to deal with the growing problems of droughts, storms, floods and lower crop yields on their own.

Even the self-proclaimed leader, the European Union, is under pressure from the European business lobby over auctioning pollution permits that could help fulfil its promise to provide funding for developing countries to adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change.

Step two: shift the blame.

The finger gets pointed at countries like China on the basis that they are the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, having recently surpassed the United States. But other players introduce facts into the game. China is one of the biggest emitters because it has the most people—a fifth of the world population. The average American emits five times as much as the average Chinese and twenty times more than the average Indian.
It is also a myth that developing countries are doing nothing to curb emissions. By the time the US Congress mandated a rise in the average fuel economy standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, China had already implemented a standard of 36 miles per gallon. China has also set a target to reduce the energy intensity of their GDP by 20% by 2010 and is a world leader in renewable energy investment.

While all countries need to take action in the face of climate change, it is unfair to tell 450 million Indian villagers who depend on dung and wood as their only energy source to take on climate change emission targets when people in rich countries driving around in air conditioned SUVs do not.

Rich nations that are mainly responsible for the climate crisis must fulfil their responsibilities to cut emissions, both under the Kyoto Protocol and beyond 2012. Instead they shift the blame.

So the game continues. Step 3 is when the players close their eyes and ignore the outrage. Responding to the latest modelling that predicts sea level rise of one metre or more, Tuvalu called for a higher level of ambition that would limit global warming to 1.5°C. Island nations are justifiably concerned as their landmass would be rendered uninhabitable by such a rise. “We are not prepared to sign a suicide agreement,” said Selwin Hart of Barbados. But who listened?

Step 4 is when ministers arrive in Poznan and save the climate change talks by recognising that we will all be in deep trouble if we fail to deal with this crisis. They realise that the mobilisation of trillions of dollars to combat the financial crisis will be irrelevant if we don’t mount a similar effort to deal with climate change. The consequences of financial system failure are potentially high, but they pale into insignificance when compared to the consequences of climate system failure.

They agree on a process to negotiate a far-reaching agreement that will limit global warming to well below 2°C. Promises will be fulfilled, responsibilities will be accepted and the global ecological and humanitarian crisis minimised.

Game over.

That’s one outcome. The other is a failure to agree on a plan for climate action after 2012. But postponing these decisions will not make them any easier. The longer action is delayed, the steeper the emissions reductions needed, the higher the cost, the more irreversible the ecological damage and the vastly greater the suffering. The time is now. Ministers must come to Poznan to complete a deal by the Copenhagen conference next December. Otherwise we all lose the game of planet roulette.

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